Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, it is a time to remember our mortality as we enter the penitential season of Lent in preparation for Easter. For me, it serves as a natural marker, a seasonal event to remind me to take stock of my life. Perhaps it is natural that I should now think back to a time of introspection some 25 years ago.

It was around my 30th birthday that I decided to spend a few days at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Gethsemani is the trappist monastery best know as the place where Thomas Merton lived after taking vows in the order. Mine was a personal, unstructured retreat. I prayed the hours with the monks, hiked in the Kentucky woodlands, and ate the simple fare offered at the monastery. At the end of my stay, I stopped by the gift shop and left with some excellent cheese and fruitcake (crafted by the monks there), and at least one insight which I wrote down in the poem that follows.

A Small Brown Bird, a Red Bandanna, and a Fat Man Coughing
(Day One at a Trappist Monastery)

I'm not sure I know what a distraction is.

Today I spent a couple of hours walking through
the autumn woods near Gethsemani Abbey.
A small brown bird caught my attention as he
chirped and flitted among the bushes
down by a pond.

During afternoon prayer
a monk pulled out a red bandanna
and blew his nose.
It was just like the bandannas Dad gave
my brother and me when we were children.
We loved our bandannas, and we used them
to wipe sweat, to be cowboys, to be hobos,
and to carry Mom's oatmeal cookies.

By one small act, this monk
brought a part of my childhood
before God.

There was a fat man in the guesthouse.
I kept seeing him there.
He chain-smoked cigarettes and coughed every fifteen
I drank a cup of coffee in the next room.
I kept hearing that fat man cough.
I read about Julian of Norwich in the library.
I heard the hacking cough - like a carpenter's saw
every fifteen seconds.

Did the bird make me forget the autumn woods?
Did the bandanna interrupt my prayer?
Did the fat man's cough disturb my inner silence,
or did it punctuate my inner noise?

I'm not sure I know what a distraction is.


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